Authored by Shelby S. Skeabeck at Shawe Rosenthal
June 12th, 2018
About two weeks ago, it was widely reported that a Michigan woman brought brownies baked with laxatives (yes, you read that right) to work for another employee’s going away party. As reported by one media outlet, the Ann Arbor News, the employer received a tip that the employee might bring in “laced” brownies. Before the brownies could be served at the festivities (fortunately!) the Company confiscated the brownies based on the tip and called the police. Apparently, the woman who brought in the “special” brownies had some sort of beef with the departing employee. When the police questioned the employee who made the brownies, she eventually ended up confessing to putting laxatives in them. According to the story, the Company then terminated her.
This case got me thinking about some of the lessons that are important for employers to keep in mind when dealing with disgruntled or bad behaving employees.
One lesson is that involving police in potential criminal behavior that takes place at the workplace or that could affect the workplace often is wise (and in some cases may be critical). In the case described above, if the employer hadn’t taken the co-worker’s tip seriously and contacted the police, co-workers could have consumed the brownies. This would have been tantamount to poisoning! An employer that fails to contact police when the circumstances warrant it may be liable to employees for the harm that results (both morally and legally). When counseling employers who are concerned about involving the police in a workplace matter, I try to help them understand the risks of failing to do so (particularly when there potentially is criminal conduct).
A second lesson is that sometimes employers are hesitant to terminate employees for fear of being unable to “substantiate” alleged wrongful behavior in the workplace. In the case here, the Company terminated the employee after receiving a tip from a co-worker and police involvement. After receiving the tip, clearly, the Company wasn’t in the position to forensically test the brownies to confirm whether they contained laxatives, but based on the tip the employer was in a position to conduct an investigation. When an employer receives a complaint or tip about inappropriate or wrongful behavior, it is important to conduct an investigation, including interviewing witnesses and talking to the employee who is allegedly involved in inappropriate behavior. Thereafter, if the facts as the employer understands them support the complaint/allegation, termination is absolutely appropriate. Courts usually look to an employer’s understanding of the facts at the time they make decisions and defer to the knowledge in the mind of the decision maker when addressing employment claims.
While this is certainly a strange workplace scenario, it affords employers with some great lessons to keep in mind.